Published Nov. 9, 2009
The Suncoast has never been known as a haven for alcohol producers, and until recently locally made spirits were tough to come by. But over the past year two local companies have jumped onto the scene in an effort to give Sarasota its own distinctive flavor. Drum Circle Distilling and Jalehouse Beer are helping to create a new aspect of the area’s identity — our very own booze. And the two companies may soon be tied together.
Drum Circle Distilling is the brainchild of Troy Roberts (pictured at top), a Sarasota native that decided to venture into the world of rum production after a successful Internet marketing career. Two and a half years ago Roberts began selling off a number of his automotive websites and began to pursue his labor of love. “I was looking into recipes for rum cakes and I found the Tortuga Rum Company,” says Roberts. “When I saw that you could make your own rum I said, ‘Wow.’ As soon as I sold [the websites] I started looking into this more seriously. … I spent my whole career in technology and it was cool, but I wanted to work with something more tangible.”
Roberts knew nothing about the distilling process when he started, but picked up the knowledge during two years of extensive research, trial and error. One thing he knew from the beginning was that no matter what he may eventually produce, he wanted to start with rum, which would eventually become his first product: Siesta Key Rum. “It’s just art, you know. It wasn’t science. I like a molasses rum because I think it has a deeper flavor profile to it. I like more robust flavors myself, but they’re all good. I like any rum.”
For Roberts to say, “I like rum,” is a drastic understatement. His distillery is practically a showcase for top-of-the-line distilling equipment. He uses a mash tank, fermenters and a copper pot still that were handmade in Germany by the centuries-old Christian CARL Distilleries. Between rent in one of Sarasota’s light industrial districts (at first the county wanted him zoned as heavy industrial), attorneys fees, all the equipment and getting the electrical, plumbing and sprinkler systems up to code, he’s put nearly $1 million dollars into the project.
Roberts has the capacity to produce about 300 cases, or 3,600 bottles, of rum a month, but he needs a way to distribute it. Florida has a three-tiered system which stipulates that producers, distributors and retailers all must be owned by separate entities. Roberts wants to find a smaller distributor that is willing to accommodate his small-scale launch. “It’s the biggest pain in the ass because the big guys don’t think like small producers,” he says. “They want to launch all over the entire state. I can make 300 cases a month. I want to launch on Siesta Key and locally in Sarasota and build slowly. Bottom line is I can grow pretty quickly if there’s that kind of demand, but if I could sell all 3,600 bottles a month I’d be pretty damn happy. I’m not looking to get rich off this thing, just have fun and make rum.”
One local distributor that Roberts has his eye on is Turtle Distributing Company of South Florida. Sales Director Keith Redding (pictured, right) and President Brian Tresidder (pictured, left) established Turtle so they could get their first brew, Jalehouse Beer, to retailers as soon as it came off the line. “Originally we wanted to do a brewery here in Sarasota,” says Redding, “but capital to do something like that was a whole different story. We wanted to get the product initially out and going. If it catches on enough and we get enough of a market then we’ll start to open our own brewery. Then we’ll have to split it up.”
Redding and Tresidder can distribute their own beer because they don’t actually produce it. They create the recipes and send them off to be brewed at the Florida Beer Company. “The Florida Beer Company in Melbourne was definitely the one we felt best with,” says Redding. “They brew Ybor Gold and Key West beers. We tried every one of their beers to make sure they were the company we wanted. This is your child. You want to make sure the daycare is appropriate.”
The two 28-year-old brewing newbies decided their first release should be a light, low-carb, low-calorie lager. Tresidder, who attended the Siebel Institute of Technology brewing school in Chicago, says that Jalehouse is just the first of many brews he’s working on. “The reason we started out with a light lager was because down here in Florida when it’s 90 degrees out we wanted to have something that’s a little more refreshing, but it still tastes like beer. That was the biggest thing.”
When the first order arrived about two weeks ago and 1,245 cases of their long-awaited beer was unloaded into their warehouse, it was an emotional day for the partners. “When it got off the truck we were like, ‘Oh my God. We’ve been talking about it for two years and now we have to do it,’” says Redding. “The first bottle is still sitting in there with tear marks down it.”
Jalehouse can now be found on the shelves of 14 local establishments, and the number will grow in the weeks to come. “We want to do a slow growth. We weren’t ready to go and throw it in 50 places right away. We wanted to get our feet under us and start slow. But everywhere we go has been really receptive because we live here. The great places are all the local bars. It’s awesome to go in there and the owners are there having fun. It’s such a cool tight community.”
The Jalehouse boys are about to step up their marketing with T-shirt giveaways and “Jalehouse girls” making appearances at local bars. They have also teamed up with Night Ride taxi service to offer cards with the Jalehouse logo that are good for 10 percent off cab fares. Probably a smart move since Jalehouse’s 4.5 percent is a good half percent more alcohol by volume than most light beers.
Roberts understands that Turtle Distributing is busy slinging its own product, but he plans to talk with them soon about possibly upgrading their license to distribute liquor. He would like to have his Siesta Key Rum available to retailers by the end of the year. “I want to talk to them and see if there’s a way to work something out where I can go through them and use their license,” says Roberts. “I’ll get my own sales people and deliver the stuff myself, but I’d love to find somebody local. They want to focus on their beers right now, and that’s what they need to do. But if I can give them some money for every bottle that gets sold of mine maybe it’ll be worth it. If I could give them advice it’s that what you start out to do might not be the only thing that ends up making you a lot of money. For me I think it would fit pretty well. Local is the key.”
Photos by Tim Sukits